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Developer explains how Perl and Excel code earned him the US Army Commendation Medal

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Software engineer and Arizon Army National Guard member Vivin Paliath has explained how writing some Perl and Excel macros saw him decorated with the Army Commendation Medal, a decoration awarded “to any member of the Armed Forces who distinguishes himself or herself by heroism, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service.”

Paliath served a tour of duty in Iraq during 2005 and 2006 in a unit that operated lots of vehicles. As he explains in a post about his experiences, “My job was to order parts for mechanics, pick them up, return old parts, manage HAZMAT, dispatch/return vehicles from missions, and handle licenses.”

During pre-tour training, Paliath was introduced to the application he'd be required to use, called “ULLS-G (Unit Level Logistics System – Ground)".

The software ran in in DOS, did not offer a point-and-click interface and offered no batch processing. The last omission was galling, because it made for lots of tedious work.

“Let’s say you had to print out [driving] licenses for soldiers in your unit,” Paliath writes. “You had to go through and print out each license one by one. You’d go to a screen to load up a user’s license by entering their license number, and then you had to print it. Our unit had around 150 soldiers, so to print everyone’s licenses, I had to individually look up each soldier and then print his license.”

By happy accident, Paliath says “I stumbled across a page where someone had posted an ODBC driver for ULLS-G. This meant that I could run SQL queries against the ULLS-G data files.”

“Armed with this, I started writing Perl scripts to query the data. By the time we had reached Iraq, I had a working script that generated licenses as text files for all the soldiers. The script only took a second or two to run, and the longest part of the process was simply printing out the licenses.”

Another of Paliath's regular tasks was creating daily reports describing the condition of his unit's vehicles. Manual data entry to an Excel spreadsheets was the order of the day until he figure out that Excel was comfortable importing data from ODBC-enabled sources. One Macro later and daily reports were populated in moments.

Paliath writes that he was not supposed to undertake this work for security reasons, but that once his superiors appreciated the productivity improvements he had enabled they turned a blind eye.

His staff sergeant also noticed his work because, at the end of his tour, the certificate accompanying his Army Commendation Medal specifically mentioned his khaki coding efforts.

Paliath writes he was surprised to receive the commendation because he hardly ever went off base, and therefore worked in relative safety. “Although I didn’t work on any of it for recognition, it’s still a good feeling when you find out that your work is appreciated,” he says. ®

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